In the Canadian Arctic, ice reigns supreme

Ice reigns in the Arctic.

It dictates what you eat and what you wear. It dictates where you travel and perhaps more importantly, where you don’t. And like Bubba’s shrimp, it’s not one singular thing. There’s greasy ice, pancake ice and brash ice, primary and secondary ice, icebergs and ice cakes.

Bellot Strait blazed red on the daily ice maps, issued by the Canadian Ice Service. Red means total coverage. We weren’t getting through. Like the qallunaat (non-Inuit) explorers who came before – Cook, Franklin, McClure, Rae and Amundsen among them – my own journey through the Northwest Passage was cut short by ice.

Greenland: Earth’s ice factory

Before heading across Baffin Bay and into the Canadian Arctic, European explorers often stopped in Disko Bay on the western coast of Greenland to send letters home to loved ones. Modern expedition cruises into the passage also begin on the world’s biggest non-continental island (home to the world’s sparsest population), where Inuit and Danish cultures collide.

Colorful villages dot the coastline. Shops sell muskox gloves and hats, while bartenders pop open green bottles of Carlsberg. Greenland sled dogs laze in the summer sun, tied up in fields on the outskirts of town. One such town, Ilulissat, is famous for icebergs.

An iceberg floats in front of the town of Ilulissat in Western Greenland — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

The UNESCO World Heritage-listed Ilulissat Icefjord is one of the few places where the Greenland ice cap meets the sea. The glacier, among the fastest-moving and most active on the planet, calves more than 8 cubic miles of ice per year. These icebergs, some the size of Manhattan, make their way up the coast of Greenland, across Baffin Bay and down the eastern coast of Canada to Newfoundland. The journey takes two to three years, and many bergs are still the size of houses by the time they arrive.

A boardwalk leads from the town of Ilulissat up a hill to a high point overlooking the glacier. Ice extends as far as I can see, and the silence is only interrupted by the occasional thunder crack of a berg calving. The summer sun is shining, causing the faceted surfaces to melt and glisten. It’s one of those moments that’s hard to pull yourself away from. But tomorrow we’ll be starting our own journey with the icebergs across Baffin Bay and into the Northwest Passage.

The search for the Northwest Passage

Explorers throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries set sail from Europe in search of a navigable trading route to Asia through the frozen Canadian arctic, a feat that wouldn’t be realized until Roald Amundsen completed the passage in 1906. The search for such a passage ended in numerous disasters and claimed hundreds of lives, none more famous than the Franklin Expedition.

Sir John Franklin and his 128 men sailed from England in 1845 aboard the lavishly outfitted HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They were last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay in July of the same year. The two ships never returned, and for the next 150 years, the fate of Franklin and his men was shrouded in mystery.

It wasn’t until September 2014 that the wreck of the HMS Erebus was discovered in Queen Maud Gulf. The HMS Terror was found two years later, in near pristine condition beneath the frigid waters of Terror Bay. The ships had become stuck in the ice and abandoned. No one survived.

Aboard Adventure Canada’s Ocean Endeavour, my fellow passengers and I sailing the Northwest Passage didn’t make it nearly as far. Mother Nature had other plans.

Even in August, ice can cover much of Prince Regent InletEven in August, ice can cover much of Prince Regent Inlet — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

Life in the Canadian Arctic

If your vision is anything like most ‘Southerners,’ you see the North as arid, stark, inhospitable. It’s a common misconception. Life here above the tree line requires resiliency, but life persists in abundance.

A polar bear walks across some sea ice in Croker BayA polar bear walks across some sea ice in Croker Bay — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

Humpback whales feed at the edge of an ice floe, their spouts backlit by the low arctic sun. A polar bear rolls around on a bit of sea ice, clearly untroubled by our presence. We see narwhals, walruses and bowhead whales surfacing in the icy waters, and the occasional seal pops its head up, always wary of nearby human and ursine hunters.

Arctic mammals stand in the spotlight, but there’s life everywhere you look.  A zodiac ride along the sea cliffs of Prince Leopold Island reveals tens of thousands of nesting seabirds, mostly thick-billed murres preparing for their winter migration. Northern fulmars follow our passage, feasting on the bounty churned up by the propeller. Out on the land, mosses, lichens and ground-hugging shrubs blanket the tundra, little arctic gardens that look like they’d be right at home in the tropics. 

Purple saxifrage grows throughout the High Arctic, including within Sirmilik National ParkPurple saxifrage grows throughout the High Arctic, including within Sirmilik National Park — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

While scurvy and starvation were constant threats for early European explorers, the Inuit (‘the people’) and their ascendants had been thriving in the extreme climates of Arctic Canada, Greenland, Siberia and Alaska for centuries before first European contact.

With no wood to burn and permafrost unfit for cultivation, sustenance in the North typically takes the form of animal protein. “Country foods” – Narwhal, seal, minke whale, muskox and caribou – were (and still are) the bread and butter. Seal oil fuels the qulliq (oil lamp) for light, warmth and welcome.

Like every culture around the globe, including our own, Inuit communities are modernizing while seeking ways to embrace their cultural identity. Dog sleds are giving way to ski-doos and kayaks are frequently made from more durable materials instead of traditional seal skins. A boy escorting me to a cairn atop a hill outside the community of Qikiqtarjuaq brags of catching his first narwhal the week before, stealing furtive glances at the cell phone in the pocket of his jeans as we walk. 

That’s another misconception, that Inuit, like many indigenous communities around the globe, are “losing” their culture.

“You don’t hear Settler society up in arms about losing the culture of the horse and buggy, because it only made sense to move on from there,” explains Robert Comeau, an Inuk from the Nunavut capital of Iqaluit and a Culturalist with Adventure Canada. “Why is that privilege afforded to one cohort of society and not the other?”

Comeau, a law student, founded the Iqaluit Qajaq Society to promote kayaking, a sport that originated in the Arctic, among local youth. “The Qajaq is a tangible way for me to build a knowledge set based in thousands of years of tradition but also with modern tools,” says Comeau.

An Inuk resident of Pond Inlet explains the uses of a traditional sod houseAn Inuk resident of Pond Inlet explains the uses of a traditional sod house — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

The narratives of the North

Traditional versus modern.

Civilized versus savage.

These are narratives that have shaped the Inuit relationship with Settler cultures since first contact. The dichotomy played out in the story of the Franklin Expedition as well.

“There’s no better example than the British Admiralty sailing through the waters in their wool coats and leather shoes, and freezing to death…because they were civilized. Because they needed to be proper. They needed to be dressed,” says Comeau. “But they would look down on the Inuit for wearing skins and eating blubber. Blubber has the Vitamin C that could have saved thousands of scurvy lives.”

Many of the most successful Arctic expeditions embraced, rather than rebuked, Inuit local knowledge.

Canada’s historic relationship with the Inuit has been a tragic one. Residential schools were a reality throughout Canada during much of the twentieth century, but there’s a lesser-known chapter in the story, that of High Arctic relocation.

In the Cold War during the mid-1950s, 87 Inuit were moved by the Canadian government from their own lands to the High Arctic as a means to assert sovereignty in the Far North. Martha Flaherty, an Adventure Canada Culturalist aboard the Ocean Endeavour, was a child when her family was forced to move.

As we walk together along the rock-strewn shores of Maxwell Bay, Flaherty recalls traversing a similar landscape as a young girl. Wearing thin seal skin slippers, she cried out as the sharp stones cut into her feet until someone picked her up to carry her. She recounts these and other memories in her film, Martha of the North.

A small plant peeks through the sharp rocks of Maxwell BayA small plant peeks through the sharp rocks of Maxwell Bay — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada is taking steps to make reparations for these dark chapters in history, but there’s work left to be done.

“The traumas that we’re facing are so fresh and they’re so in our face all the time,” says Comeau. “It’s important to find ways to celebrate family, to celebrate community, to enjoy the music of our lives and the stories that we tell each other, and not feel like we don’t have any value.”

As visitors to the North, what role do we play in healing?

Comeau explains, “The best things visitors can do is just acknowledge the responsibility you have to be a welcoming visitor. Sit down and listen. Step away from the need to fix things. Go farther than saying, ‘Oh my god, that’s so terrible,’ and say, ‘Okay, how do I learn more? How do I learn about these mechanisms that I benefit from?’ Even if it’s just one person, that person can go home and start to dismantle the system they benefit from.”

A global tipping point

As some wounds heal, others are forming.

An alarming change is taking place in the North: that of its ecosystems. Everything in the Arctic Circle plays by the rules of the ice, and the ice is melting. 

“The most critical tipping point is freezing. You go from solid to liquid, and that has a profound influence on life,” says Elizabeth Hadly during a panel discussion on climate change aboard the Ocean Endeavour. Hadly is a professor of environmental biology at Stanford University and co-author of the book, Tipping Point for Planet Earth: How Close Are We to the Edge?

Temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast than in other parts of the world, thanks to a process known as Arctic amplification. Arctic sea ice coverage is declining at a rate of nearly 13 percent each decade, according to NASA satellite observations. That glacier I sat next to in Greenland is receding into the ice sheet. In fact, parts of the Greenland ice sheet are melting at the fastest rate in some 400 years.

If that entire ice sheet were to melt, global sea levels would rise as much as 20 feet.

The implications of this change, while not yet fully understood, are staggering.

We witnessed a tangible example from the decks of the ship in the form of several killer whales swimming off the coast of Baffin Island. A new predator has moved into the arctic. Reduced sea ice means more territory for the orca to hunt. If sea ice melt exposes the calving waters of narwhal and beluga whales, the consequences could be catastrophic.

Iconic arctic species are feeling the impact as well. “We’re getting reports both from local [Inuit] knowledge and from scientific observation of increased cannibalism by polar bears,” explains panelist Dr. Mark Mallory, seabird biologist and Canada Research Chair in Coastal Wetland Ecosystems at Acadia University.

And there’s a human impact as well.

“We are losing archaeological sites in the North at an unprecedented rate,” says panelist Dr. Lisa Rankin, Professor of Archaeology at Memorial University in Newfoundland. “It’s a history of all the northern peoples of Canada that’s disappearing before we have time to fully understand it.”

Perhaps the most chilling consequence? Climate refugees.

Some 634 million people live in low-elevation coastal areas. With just a few feet of sea level rise, hundreds of millions of people would be displaced.

“Climate refugees are going to rapidly become one, if not the issue,” says panelist John England, a geologist with more than 50 years of fieldwork in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. “This is impacting who we are as a global society, and how we respond to it is going to be the question that we have to answer.”

A call to do better

The still waters of Croker Bay create reflections of ice, land and skyThe still waters of Croker Bay create reflections of ice, land and sky — Photo courtesy of Lydia Schrandt

It’s easy to feel hopeless in the face of such staggering statistics.

But there’s a magic in the Arctic that inspires hope as well. The glowing halo of a sun dog low on the horizon, the misty spout of a humpback whale in front of a sea of icebergs, the silhouette of narwhal tusks cutting through the glassy water at sunset, the thunder of cracking ice, the realization of just how small I am when standing amid the vastness of Sirmilik National Park – these moments and these wild places are worth saving.

A visit to the Arctic calls each of us to do better. To be better stewards of the land. To open our hearts to our fellow humans, both in the North where Inuit communities work to heal from past wounds, and, as the ice continues to melt, across the globe as humanity seeks higher ground.

We were meant to sail to Coppermine, but Bellot Strait was clogged with ice. Like explorers of old, we were stymied in our quest to sail the Northwest Passage. But what we came away with was a deeper sense of adventure, and an appreciation for the delicate ecosystems and enduring cultures of the North.

In the Arctic, ice reigns. And for now, it persists.

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